Rebecca Lerner: Waiting for my Maryland story

Sunday, November 15, 2015 - 9:55pm

I had barely walked past my English professor’s door when I saw the map. Upon closer inspection, I noticed it was adorned with small, curlicue letters listing titles of books within defined state borders.

This map is called “The United States of Books,” and when I couldn’t stop thinking about it and tried to find it online later, I found multiple variations of this list. There are maps that showed the most popular books set in their respective state, the book most frequently purchased in each state, and several that try to claim that one book can serve as a representative for an entire state.

I have mixed feelings about this claim. “Where are you from?” is often the first or second friendly question we get when meeting new people. (The other being the unremitting “What do you do?” or the collegiate translation of “What’s your major?”)

So to have literature intercede and do some of the work for us — essentially, assigning responsibility for the identity of a state to a particular book — is a strange idea. I say this mostly because the book that allegedly represents my state is foreign to me.

I’m from Maryland, but I was born in Washington, D.C., about 15 miles away from my house. I grew up my entire life in the house that my parents and dogs still occupy. In the suburbs of D.C., I had a very happy childhood, owing mostly to my parents, brother and grandmother who acted as a third parent, but also due in large part to my location. I had a backyard to run around and play in, I could walk safely to my friends’ houses, I could kayak on the Potomac River with my dad or bike the 16 miles to Georgetown with my best friend on the C&O Canal. My house is close enough to D.C. that I can easily get to the Lincoln Memorial or get the sushi tacos that Maryland lacks, but traffic isn’t as affected by the hassles of endless diplomatic and presidential motorcades the way it would be if I lived there.

It sounds like the best of both worlds, and it was. But the 18 years I spent in Bethesda are not represented in the book that was chosen to symbolize my state. The Maryland book that is on the list on my English professor’s door is “The Accidental Tourist,” by Ann Tyler. I picked it up from the library on my way home that day, and it’s phenomenal. But I didn’t relate to it as a Marylander.

“The Accidental Tourist” is set in Baltimore, about an hour from Bethesda. But the novel doesn’t focus on its location or in any way make Baltimore come to life. “The Accidental Tourist” could be located anywhere, really. Location isn’t important to this novel — it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the National Book Award for fiction not because of the few times that it mentions that the characters live in Baltimore, but because of the narrative and compelling characters. Tyler’s books are distinctively American. As a reviewer highlighted when it came out, “(Tyler) has taken as her fictional territory that sprawling American landscape of the middle class.” “The Accidental Tourist” is a book that explores the complexities of the American family. But the next time someone asks me where I’m from, I couldn’t rely on “The Accidental Tourist” to tell my story of Maryland.

So I thought about what novel could. I found it in about 10 seconds of racking my brain: “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”

When I picked up that familiar book again, my recollections of the four best friends of different body types that can magically fit into the same pair of jeans were spot on. In the first few pages, I realized how close the experiences of these girls were to my experiences when I was 16 and desperately wanted to leave the idyllic childhood I described with joy earlier. I saw the common white lies of my friends to the ceaseless “Where are you from?” quandary in the response of Bridget, a Bethesda native, who casually replies, “I’m from Washington, D.C.” And as Carmen, another one of the narrators, says in the first few pages “It’s not enough to stay in Bethesda, Maryland, and hunker down in an air conditioned house.”

But the simultaneous boredom and pleasure of suburbia is not unique to Bethesda, or Maryland. The same location problems can be found in Jeffrey Eugenides’s “The Virgin Suicides” and Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” which are set in Michigan and Minnesota, respectively.

When the structure and ideals of a place is as easily reproducible as those of my hometown — good schools, competition over everything imaginable, open spaces for kids to ride their bikes or get high — it makes that location, at least in a literary sense, standard and routine. For these books, narrative takes enormous precedent over where the characters are. A suburban backdrop for a novel can often be put in any state.

The list of books that represent states should be looking for the strange and the uncanny found to represent each state. This is easier to do with states that can more easily embody particular ideals. On most lists, Hawaii is captured by “The Descendants.” “Gone with the Wind” is almost always chosen for Georgia. I’ll admit, I haven’t spent much time in these states and maybe that’s why I’m more willing to accept these assertions. I love stories where the setting can become more of a character than a background. When I read that John Hughes described “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” as his love letter to Chicago, I wanted to find something similar for the places I hold close to me, even when I’m hundreds of miles away.

I haven’t yet. I love “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” — it makes me think of my past, complete with all the frustrations and beauty of suburbia. When I go back for my summers in this perilous place between teenage angst and adult realization, I can’t also go back to identifying with the story of the four teenagers who refuse to wash their jeans. I’m not afraid to ask for a better story from Maryland because I think that it can deliver. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting.